Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis is quite a trip. Initially, I gave it four stars, as I often do for an anthology -- every story doesn't workCthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis is quite a trip. Initially, I gave it four stars, as I often do for an anthology -- every story doesn't work for everyone, you know. But after some thought, I'm bumping it up to five because, thematically, it's something new (at least to me) in Mythos literature.
Madness, madness, madness. We all know the Old Ones bring madness to mankind. Happens all the time. But here's a twist: the motif of Cthulhusattva is pushing through that soul-shattering chaos to enlightenment on the other side. As Jones says in his preface,"When all is madness, there is no madness." A Tao of Cosmic Horror. What a fascinating way to break fresh ground!
Highlights for me included Gord Sellar's "Heiros Gamos," in which a self-taught acolyte experiences the ancient, cthonic Eleusinian Mysteries firsthand; "We Three Kings," Don Raymond's eerie revision of the Nativity story; and Rhoads Brazos' urban noir, "Feeding the Abyss," in which we meet the contractors who specialize in keeping the gods fed. Brazos' story also boasts one of my favorite sentences in the whole collection: "In a world of limitations, only a fool would hesitate to touch the infinite."
But the heart, and possibly also the point, of the collection is Ruthanna Emrys' "The Litany of Earth." Here we meet Aphra Marsh (of those Marshes), a mild, devout "Aeonist" in a world where they are a persecuted minority. Emrys turns our expectations of the Mythos gods inside-out (and lays in some fair social commentary in the process):
"Most religions consist largely of good people trying to get by. No matter what names they worship, or what church they go to, or what language they pray in . . . [a]nd every religion has its fanatics, who are willing to do terrible things in the name of their god. No one is immune . . . [i]t's a failing of humanity, not of any particular sect."
What if all those gibbering cultists we've grown so used to are the Aeonist equivalent of suicide bombers and snake-handlers? What if there's really another way?
I don't know why I've never read Tim Curran before - Corpse Rider is exactly the kind of horror that would have caused me sleepless nights, which I seI don't know why I've never read Tim Curran before - Corpse Rider is exactly the kind of horror that would have caused me sleepless nights, which I secretly loved, had I encountered it in my teens. (The Shining's dead lady in the bathtub prevented me from peeing at night for weeks. Good times.) In In this tale about a young woman who attracts the wrong kind of attention in return for a good deed at a cemetery, Curran conjures pure malevolence in a bloated, oozing sac, and it's delightfully sick. Also vividly imagined and colorfully described - his evocation of pure dread is particularly affecting. Not for everybody, but if you like a splattering of gore and rot with your terrifying haints, spend an afternoon with Corpse Rider....more
After the death of his wife, insurance salesman Oswald Priestly hopes for a fresh start when he moves himself and his teenaged daughter Amy into NazarAfter the death of his wife, insurance salesman Oswald Priestly hopes for a fresh start when he moves himself and his teenaged daughter Amy into Nazarill, a centuries-old hulk of a building newly renovated into "luxury apartments." Unfortunately the renovations haven't entirely effaced Nazarill's bloody past, which lies closer to the surface than either Priestly is prepared for. When fifteen year-old Amy's adolescent (and totally normal) rebellions start to puzzle, then annoy, and finally infuriate Oswald, Nazarill's dark heart begins to beat.
The story is told in alternating narrative voices, and readers are privy to the perspectives of both Oswald and Amy, which begin to warp as the house goes to work on them. While Amy struggles against childhood nightmares come to life, she also becomes driven to uncover the secrets of her new home; put simply, Oswald becomes obsessed with stopping her at any cost. We can only watch helplessly as their lives absorb the taint of old violence from Nazarill's walls.
Nazareth Hill puts me in mind of The Shining, in that it tells of a house that feeds on poisoning its tenants' minds (and fathers in particular), but its vibe is more a a very British old-school ghost story. It relies heavily on a classic slow build of suspense -- strange noises, bad lighting, doors just barely cracked open, and shapeless revenants glimpsed but not-quite seen. All this it does excellently (view spoiler)[Amy's adventures with the first floor in particular were spellbindingly awful for me (hide spoiler)], so when the shocks do come, they are really shocking. OMG-gasp-out-loud shocking.
Where Nazareth Hill falls a star short of perfect is in the unevenness of its characterization: who knew a middle-aged man could write a more nuanced teenaged girl than he could a middle-aged man? Obviously, readers are meant to sympathize with Amy, but it's a shame that Oswald, who starts out as a hapless widower coping with the mysteries of adolescence, becomes an entirely repulsive, over-the-top character. It feels plain lazy to make the heroine's father a total monster; even Jack Torrance retained a shred of humanity to the end.
4 out of 5 stars for excellence in atmosphere peopled by unevenly executed characters. ...more
Jeremy Bates may be on to something here. At first I thought the "Scariest Places" shtick seemed kind of goofy, but boy does Bates put those places toJeremy Bates may be on to something here. At first I thought the "Scariest Places" shtick seemed kind of goofy, but boy does Bates put those places to good use. In the first installment, Suicide Forest, he conjures up a palpable sense of dread, but the characters kept on doing REALLY stupid things, seemingly only in the service of generating plot twists.
The good news is that this second installment, set in the labyrinthine tunnels of the Paris catacombs, feels more authentic. Most of the characters are experienced "cataphiles" -- urban explorers well equipped for the dangers of their passion. (Plenty of batteries, proper equipment, even something like a map.) The only noob is our narrator Will, an American who has come to Paris to recover from personal tragedy. When his alluring language-practice partner Daniele invites him to take a trip underneath Paris with her cataphile buddies to investigate the source of a disturbing found video shot in the tunnels, he goes along on what becomes a nightmare for the entire group.
Again, the location does a lot of heavy lifting - dark, endless, unmapped tunnels full of bones are pretty creepy to begin with - but Bates' descriptive skills bring you on an amazing virtual tour of the Catacombs that you're unlikely to get in real life. And it's not all just bones; along with our intrepid explorers, you'll discover deeply hidden rooms full of murals, or furnished with rotting antiques, even a purported Nazi bunker. But it wouldn't be a horror story without something lurking around the next turn, in the dark. The dark is also a big star in this show.
The details of that lurking fear I'll leave to you, but I will say the plot moves along at a galloping pace, and it's hard to put down once you've started. One thing I didn't love was the way POV chapters were handled. The switch from Will's POV (the primary one) to other, less central characters' felt jarring sometimes, but I'm not sure how the full story could have been told in the way it was without them. Barring that stylistic nitpick, I really enjoyed The Catacombs; it's a quick, atmospheric and suspenseful read. 4 stars. ...more
I'd love to write a really thorough review, but that's always difficult when it comes to an anthology. Overall, the stories were of high quality, thouI'd love to write a really thorough review, but that's always difficult when it comes to an anthology. Overall, the stories were of high quality, though as is also the case with most anthologies not all of them were up my alley. I'll settle for highlighting a few stories that really worked for me.
1) Clive Barker's "Coming to Grief" may be the most gut-wrenching, yet eerily calm, portrayal of bereavement I've read. This story of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her mother's death is profoundly unsettling because it magnifies and foreshadows (or reminds us of), our own fear and guilt around the death of a loved one. (Is it wrong if I feel nothing? If it's a relief? If there's just a hole?) Here, Barker quietly defines death as "an unknowable nothing that was the space where life used to be," and that void is the real horror. Barker was an early favorite of mine -- "Hellraiser" was my first big screen horror movie, and the next day I went looking for The Books of Blood -- but I haven't read him in a long time. Nice to know he can still deliver a gut punch, especially of the subtler emotional kind.
2) "The One You Live With" by Josh Malerman is the story of a mother's warning becoming prophecy, a story which strikes me as uncannily perceptive about what it means to hide your true face, to cope with the eerie chasms that define and separate our various masks. She tells her young daughter that " . . . the older you get, the more the split is gonna grow, breaking up the two yous, until you hardly recognize the you you are when you're out of the house and the you you are when you're not. I think it's the best thing a person can do is to try and keep those two yous as close together as they can." While her warning's effects on her daughter are less salubrious than hoped, I personally found it to be excellent advice for staying sane-ish.
3) "Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave," by Brian Kirk, feels like reading The Girl Next Door, only with punchlines. This deeply disturbing story of a man whose missing-presumed-dead daughter is returned to him after several years of horrific torture at the hands of her captor is only endurable thanks to Kirk's deft use of pitch-black humor . . . but it treads a very sick line.
Other high points are Maria Alexander's "Hey, Little Sister," a family revenge tale; Paul Tremblay's literary Mobius strip "A Haunted House is a Wheel upon Which Some are Broken"; "On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes," Damien Angelica Walters' take on the damage done in teen bullying; and "When We All Meet at the Ofrenda," Kevin Lucia's weird little tale of one man's strategy for keeping his beloved family together.
All told, a solid 4.5. Nicely done, Mr. Murano....more
Full disclosure: I spent Halloween 2006 in Doolin, and all that happened was that I got a fabulous meal (a giant bowl of mussels in wine and garlic buFull disclosure: I spent Halloween 2006 in Doolin, and all that happened was that I got a fabulous meal (a giant bowl of mussels in wine and garlic butter, so big I couldn't finish it), a festive night at the pub* and a hideous hangover which pretty much prevented me from appreciating the stunning Cliffs of Moher at all the following day.
Largely as a result of the traditional music scene, today's Doolin is more of a destination (though there are still only three pubs) than when Ryan wrote Cast a Cold Eye. However, its position on the myth- and history-haunted west coast of Ireland makes for a superbly atmospheric setting, and Alan Ryan captures the paradoxical, uncanny attraction of the region as well as any Irish writer, barring Yeats. It's a classic romantic landscape, a land of "terrible beauty," as the great poet once wrote; the alien stretches of the Burren, the sweeping Atlantic vistas, the kindly but aloof locals, relentless sea and punishing weather combine to cast a compelling melancholy, not unlike the sound of uilleann pipes. The romantic shadow of Yeats hovers over the book's title as well, as it's taken from the great poet's "Under Ben Bulben," and reads in full "Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death. / Horseman, pass by." Also of note, these words are Yeats' self-chosen epitaph, etched into a headstone in a tiny, ancient Sligo churchyard.
Which brings us, fittingly, back to the grave, as Cast a Cold Eye opens on a damp, chilly night in an ancient burial ground, and it closes there as well. The tale in between concerns Jack Quinlan, a popular Irish-American writer who decides that a stay in the remote west of Ireland will be a boon to both his writing and his research on a book about the Great Famine. He obtains a house in Doolin for three months, and settles in to a pleasant routine of writing in the mornings and spending convivial evenings at the local pubs listening to traditional music. But before long, Jack begins experiencing visions of piteous, gaunt phantoms -- collapsed at the roadside, wandering the Burren, and even pacing his car in the dark Irish night. Are the isolation and research into the region's tragic past playing tricks on him, or is something darker afoot? The answer lies in a silence kept by four old men and the local priest, who tries to befriend Jack, in his way.
I'll say no more, except this secret, when it comes out, may not be at all what you think. In a way Cast a Cold Eye reminds me a bit of Thomas Tryon's very scary Harvest Home, in that the story's tension arises from newcomers engaging with ancient local traditions, whether purposely or not. Compared to today's extreme horror, it likely won't shock you too much, but it packs a deeply resonant mythic punch, especially stark and pagan when set against its very Catholic milieu. Hibernophile that I am, I adored this book, entrenched as it is in the very blood of Ireland's tragic past, and filled with the uncanny magic of its singular landscape.
Five well-earned stars. And I wish I could get a poster of that awesome new Valancourt edition. Anybody know the artist?